This Week's Curator: Shawn Fleek, Director of Narrative Strategy for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon
My name at birth was Shawn Fleek, and in 2015 my last name became popular slang. My Tinder bio used to say “I love Portland enough to tell it when it makes mistakes, and I want people in my life who love me that way.” I grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania, the son of two factory workers. I’m a queer cis man, able-bodied, non-neurotypical. I’m multiracial. My grandmother raised me to be proud of and identify with my Native ancestry. We’re descendants of the Northern Arapaho tribe. I’m a transit-dependent renter, I’ve lived in Portland since 2007, and in that time I’ve lived in 14 apartments because again: renter, Portland. I recently became the Director of Narrative Strategy for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon; I get to help all sorts of audiences understand OPAL’s amazing work organizing in East Portland and across the state to reduce race and class disparities, and achieve environmental and climate justice. In my spare time I write stories, run Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, enjoy cinema, drink tea, and eat the best food I can find or make.
Tell us about your neighborhood. What are the ups and downs of it?
I’m in the 70-unit complex on 73rd and Division. This is the furthest East I’ve lived in my 12 years in Portland, so I’m not used to certain things about this neighborhood. It’s all housing here! My last neighborhood had shops, restaurants, night life, a theater and three places to get dessert. Given the housing crisis, I’m glad all these homes are here, but I can only afford to live here because it’s not walkable at all. Like most neighborhoods out this way, we don’t have basic pedestrian infrastructure. A few side streets between my place and the OPAL office have potholes. Actually, that’s an understatement. Vast canyons of dusty gravel and thick mud cover the roadways in my neighborhood. It’s mostly one-story homes and apartments, a horribly inefficient use of urban space.
What are your favorite East Portland things to do and places to go?
As a transit-dependent night-owl and hungry boy, the nearest late night bite to eat is an 8-block walk at Steinhaus. Schnitzel Burritos and lots of queer and trans clientele? Yes, ma’am. I buy freezer dim sum for late night snacks at the Chinese grocer on the south side of Division at 83rd. Fubonn Mall’s Rockin’ Crab lunch special Rockin’ Spicy Beef Bowl with ramen noodles. But the most important answer in this paragraph is my thrice-a-week lunch at Rosita’s Mexican Food cart. Give this woman all your money. I also wanna mourn in this answer the Bravo Lounge, may it rest in peace, and also celebrate the Escape Lounge for its good food, karaoke funtimes, and extremely gay clientele.
What do you think people don’t know about East Portland that they should know?
East Portland should serve as a land base to oppose the gentrification and commodification of our neighborhoods. Portland is seeing an influx from our suburbs and other areas of folks with no attachment to this place. They bring with them an unrepentant desire for 20 foot ceilings, granite countertops, and vast, empty lawns. They eat up communities and regurgitate neofeudal condominiums and unaffordable boutique grocers where once stood bodegas and multigenerational homes. East Portland is starting to see the kind of development that began to ravage what was left of North and Northeast Portland a few decades back, which displaced predominantly Black families and also other people of color into East Portland. So in our community, we have a generation of people who were displaced in their lifetimes, or in recent family history, seeing the cranes rise again in their new neighborhoods. There exists an opportunity to leverage this heightening tension into powerful collective work, and a struggle not to repeat past mistakes. Something’s gotta give. I hope East Portland is ready to stand up and say “enough.” I consider it my work and the work of others organizing in Portland to facilitate the power shift East Portland really needs.
What do you think would be most helpful for people in East Portland?
All of this city is sited on unceded Multnomah Chinook, Clackamas, and other tribes’ lands. From the first time settlers stepped foot here, they’ve been making decisions about geography rooted in race. Modern decisions about development that further segregate and exclude low income people (read: communities of color) are no different. I encourage everyone to become a part of a grassroots base-building organization and take this city back from the wealthy developers and landowners running the show. Join a group that interests and welcomes you, whose values align with your own. What we also need are pro-bono lawyers who are willing to work as hard for the residents of East Portland as the retired wealthy folks in inner Portland work on their own behalf at “defending the character of the neighborhood.” When you’re an English Language Learner, low-income, and you live in East Portland, you likely don’t have resources or time to make it to a Portland Development Commission meeting, if you even knew it were happening. So a bunch of wealthy white people make all the decisions guiding development, and it shows in the condition of less-white, less-wealthy neighborhoods. We also need the obvious stuff that we’re denied by this development dynamic: transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, affordable housing development, car-free streets, parks and other public places and spaces, improved tree canopy, clean air, energy independence, union jobs that pay living wages, better schools, abundant community centers and neighborhood farms, and an enforceable ban on expressions of white nationalism.
How do you think your Portland matches up with the Portland you’ve seen in media?
Everything you see in national media about Portland is true, as long as you stay within 40 blocks of the Burnside Bridge. Most of that media is pretty consumer-driven (you can buy beer, coffee and coffee-beer!), or exploitative of the arts and culture of our residents (look how weird artists and activists are!). Everything that happens outside of national media attention is what makes Portland worth loving. The radical community building, the underground arts, the indie music. The graffiti here has gotten better in the last few years. I sometimes wonder when people say, “Portland is a white city,” are they saying so because that’s what they think Portland is, or because that’s what they want Portland to be? I can imagine skinheads in Portland in the 80’s saying “Portland is a white city,” aggressively, and it just catching on among moderate white folks. I encourage people to stop saying that, because it disregards the 30% of the city that isn’t, and the trend that eventually we won’t be. Portland is less white every day, blessed be.
What keeps you up at night worrying?
A persistent sinus infection following the wildfires two years ago. But actually: I refuse to lose sleep. In 30 years, when my sons and I are bowhunting in the frozen, nuclear-irradiated tundra of Beaverton, they’ll ask me, “Shawn, what was it like to sleep well at night?” And I’ll tell them: “Boy and Smaller, Different Boy, it was miraculous. My only nightmare then was my roleplayers failing to solve the coffin puzzle I created before the skeletons murdered them, unlike the waking nightmare that is this fascist hellscape.”
What gives you hope?
Storytelling. There’s a group out of the East Bay called Movement Generation who are thought leaders in the Ecological Justice movement. They say, “you can not travel anywhere you have not been in your mind.” I think about that a lot. We have to stretch our imaginations or we’re going to be stuck like we are forever. We have this immense capacity for creativity as people - and it’s true of every one of us equally. It unifies us. Some boring, comfortable people like to claim we live in the end of history, say “that’s just how it is,” “this is what’s politically feasible,” and when we get imaginative, they’ll say “you’re being unrealistic,” or “it’ll never happen.” As though when people demanded Civil Rights, women’s suffrage, or 8-hour work days the rich white men just answered, “sure.” I’ve been alive 34 years, organizing for justice for more than half of that, and it seems like nothing has happened - Ronald Reagan is still President, white supremacists are everywhere in this country, too many people watch television, and the Doomsday Clock is too close to midnight. In a way, that means that every day the tension builds toward something really amazing happening, something that’s so far beyond what we can presently imagine that we would probably laugh if someone suggested it.
Either the future we want finally happens, or we die fighting to make it happen, or we give up and it never happens.
Why did you agree to participate in this project?
I like social media for its ability to eliminate barriers between speaker and audience, and I think folks who follow the feed during my week will engage a lot of different interesting content that might expand their mind. Hopefully this week leads to the radicalization of all of Portland, a popular uprising demanding an accountable form of government, transformed social institutions, and a community movement to build systems for our future that don’t depend upon the failures and sins of the systems of the past. I also want to show off the food I cook and my storytelling maps.
Where can we find you online and/or in person once your week of tweeting is up?
I’m on twitter, instagram and snapchat @shawnfleek - please validate me, the world is dying.